BRATISLAVA (Reuters) - When setting the table for Christmas dinner, Slovaks traditionally put one extra plate on the table for an unexpected guest in need. This hospitality, however, has not been extended to migrants seeking refuge in central Europe from war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa.
Slovakia, a country of 5.4 million with a strong Roman Catholic tradition, is a largely homogenous society with next to no experience as a destination for immigrants.
The leftist government, facing an election in March, says it wants to keep it that way, a challenge to the nascent plan by European leaders for each of the bloc’s 28 members to take in a quota of asylum seekers in answer to Europe’s worst refugee crisis since the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. [ID:nL5N11D1OB]
Slovakia is being asked to take in 2,287 migrants, many of them likely to be Muslim, according to the European Commission plan; Bratislava has offered to accept 200 and raised eyebrows when it said it preferred they be Christians.
Others in central and eastern Europe are equally unwilling, renewing a divide between ‘old’ and ‘new’ Europe, between the likes of Germany and France with traditions of immigration from other continents, and ex-communist countries that have none.
“The dividing line goes between post-communist countries like Slovakia, Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary, and western European countries,” said Elena Kriglerova, head of the Bratislava-based Centre for Research of Ethnicity and Culture.
Only 1.4 percent of people living in Slovakia are foreigners. It is among six EU countries, all new member states, with the lowest proportion of people from abroad. Since its foundation in 1993, it has granted asylum to just 651 people, and received only 109 requests this year.
In defending his closed-door policy, Prime Minister Robert Fico has said the migrants may include people connected to “terrorist groups” and 95 percent of them were not fleeing danger but seeking material benefit.
“This is a ticking bomb that can have very, very bad consequences for Europe. We could wake up one day and have 100,000 people from the Arab world here,” Fico said last week.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called the leaders of several European countries, including in central Europe, to stress that a large majority of the people arriving on the continent are refugees from war and violence.
“The secretary-general stressed the individual and collective responsibility of European states to respond responsibly and humanely,” a United Nations spokesman said, noting that these people have a right to seek asylum without any form of discrimination.
Fico’s language has been strikingly similar to that of Hungary’s right-wing prime minister, Viktor Orban, in justifying building a fence along the Hungarian border to keep migrants out.
Sociologist Martin Slosiarik said Fico was using natural anxieties to stoke fear before the parliamentary election.
It may work - despite the tiny number of immigrants, 40 percent of Slovaks named immigration as the biggest problem for Slovakia in a July poll.
“It makes me sick that the EU is forcing us to take more than we’re willing,” said Pavel, 60, a Bratislava pensioner. “I’m scared of Islamisation. What will the politicians do if someone in a burqa commits a suicide attack here? It will be too late then.”
When monks proposed to house Syrian refugees - Christians, not Muslims - in an empty monastery in a western village last month, local opposition forced them to retract the offer.
There are only around 5,000 Muslims in Slovakia, where Islam is not a registered religion and there is no official mosque.
Around four times that number poured into Germany just last weekend, and Berlin says it expects to receive 800,000 asylum requests this year.
Under the EU plan in the works, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic will be asked to take in far more refugees than they are on record as saying they would accept.
The hostility is tangible. Several thousand people took part in a march against immigration in Bratislava in June, some of whom torched cars in an unusual outbreak of street violence.
A plan to temporarily house 500 people seeking asylum in neighboring Austria prompted protests in the southwestern town of Gabcikovo. Some residents said they were worried Muslims might blow up a vast dam on the Danube nearby, local media said.
Mohamad Safwan Hasna, the head of the Islamic Foundation in Slovakia, said he was increasingly aware of being stared at and shouted at in the street, and was worried about his Slovak-born wife, who wears a headscarf.
“I fear far-right extremists and when I read racist comments online I’m worried that many people would be actually able to hurt us.”
One of the arguments the region’s politicians use against quotas is that refugees are likely to move on to richer western and northern Europe, where Muslim communities are larger and societies are, in general, more tolerant of newcomers.
Unemployment in Slovakia stands at 11.5 percent versus 6.4 percent in Germany and the average Slovak wage is a quarter of the German one.
Regional economic power Poland has joined Slovakia and others in central and eastern Europe in voicing support for the hard line against quotas espoused by Hungary’s Orban.
“If we agree on the first group of refugees, there will be the second, third and fourth,” said Tomasz Siemoniak, Poland’s deputy prime minister and defense minister in an interview with TVN24 television on Tuesday.
In the Czech Republic, outspoken President Milos Zeman, warned of Islamic State “sleeper cells” infiltrating migrant communities and Muslim ghettos becoming hotbeds of unrest, comparing the influx with the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, in which hundreds of thousands died.
“I am afraid we are like a tourist on a Thai beach taking a picture of a small wave on the horizon, ignorant that he is taking the last picture in his life,” Zeman said.
The Czech Republic is more diverse than most countries in eastern Europe, with foreigners making up about 5 percent of the population, including Ukrainians, Slovaks and Vietnamese.
But 71 percent of Czechs said in a July poll that no refugees from the Middle East and Africa should be accepted.
Voices of compassion are few and far between. One is the non-executive Slovak President Andrej Kiska, who called on his countrymen on Monday to show solidarity for their own sakes.
“For many people who run to Europe, their reception is a question of life and death. For us the question is about Slovakia’s heart, about Slovakia’s character - what kind of country we want to be.”
Additional reporting by Marcin Goclowski in Warsaw and Jan Lopatka in Prague; editing by Philippa Fletcher